By MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY | Wall Street Journal
In late December 1959, nearly a year after Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had been run out the country by a movement that had a goal of restoring the 1940 Cuban constitution, Fidel Castro was tightening his grip.
At the time, Armando Valladares was a 22-year-old government bureaucrat at the Post Office Savings Bank. One day a group from the Communist Party showed up in his office and put a sign on his desk that read “If Fidel is a communist, put me on the list. He’s got the right idea.”
Castro had not yet made public his communist intentions. But Mr. Valladares says that “the sign was part of the campaign by the party and by Fidel to prepare the population for communism, which most knew little about. The idea was that since Fidel had already made his name synonymous with the Cuban messiah, he must be right about communism.”
Mr. Valladares told his visitors that he didn’t want that sign on his desk. “Five or six days later, in the wee hours of the morning, they came to my house. My mother’s room was closest to the front door so she heard the knock and got up to see who was there. When she opened the door, the men pushed her out of the way and rushed into the house. I awoke with a machine gun against my temple.”
The young Valladares had a lot of company. Thousands were being rounded up. Some waited months for their trials. Many others were immediately marched before firing squads.
Mr. Valladares got his day in court within the week. The judge, he says, sat with his feet up on the desk reading a comic book and making jokes. The search of his home had produced “no evidence, no weapons, no propaganda opposing the state.” Nevertheless he was convicted as a potential conspirator against the Revolution and sentenced to 30 years. His cell mates applauded the decision, because the only other possible sentence was the death penalty.
Cuban state security applied every torture method in the totalitarian handbook—and even some new inspirations—to break the prisoners. Many cracked and many committed suicide, but Mr. Valladares, along with a minority of others, would not bow to the “Revolution.” He says that three things preserved him during his 22 years in prison. First, he was totally sure of his ideals. Second was the love of Martha—who would become his wife—and the fact that she believed in him. Third were his religious convictions. He was finally released from prison in 1982 and forced into exile.
Castro’s resignation as “president” of Cuba this February has touched off a landslide of speculation about whether his brother Raúl, the new official head of state, might soon begin a transition away from political and economic repression. But the 71-year-old Mr. Valladares, who has become an accomplished poet and artist, human-rights activist and diplomat—he served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva—says forget it.
I recently had dinner with him and Martha at their home in Miami, and used the opportunity to pepper him with questions about the political landscape in Cuba today. Topping my list was whether we are already seeing the nascent stages of reform on the island.
His answer is an unequivocal no: “Until Fidel Castro dies, there will be no changes in Cuba. Fidel will not permit it. The terror imposed since 1959 continues today and Raúl will not dare make a single change as long as his older brother is alive.”
And what about Fidel’s health? “He can still terrorize because he has lucid moments,” Mr. Valladares says. “But those moments are unpredictable, which is why he cannot be seen in public or on live television, even for a minute.” In the meantime, the repression has increased in recent months, he tells me, as those who have participated in his crimes seek to preserve the status quo.
The Castro government has been a killing machine since it took over in 1959. If a truth and reconciliation commission is ever called on to establish accountability, Fidel, Raúl and many of their henchmen whose “hands are stained with blood,” according to Mr. Valladares, would not fare well.
It is no coincidence that the three beliefs which helped Mr. Valladares survive prison were also key tenets that the communists were determined to destroy: liberal ideals, the family and God. For their refusal to accept indoctrination—even in the face of constant beatings and forced labor, solitary confinement in tiny, windowless cells for weeks at a time, and near starvation—Mr. Valladares and his group became known as the “plantados,” which roughly translates as “the unwavering ones.”
The regime went to such extremes that I wonder if it lost its zeal to torture after a time. Mr. Valladares corrects me. He says that the conditions only grew “more repressive. As my group [the plantados] refused to accept ‘rehabilitation,’ everyday they tried to come up with new ways to torture us.”
In 22 years he only had 12 visits. The strength of the plantados impressed even his captors and in the late 1970s, he says, the official publication from the interior ministry wrote about them, marveling that “all repressive methods and tactics have failed to force a certain group of counterrevolutionary prisoners into accepting political rehabilitation.”
Mr. Valladares and three other prisoners—including Pedro Luis Boitel, who would later die on a hunger strike in 1972 when Castro gave an order to refuse him water—even escaped once from the maximum security prison on Cuba’s Isle of Pines. Using materials smuggled in from visitors, they dyed their clothes the color of military uniforms and filed through the prison bars. The disguises worked so well that “we waved to the guards as we walked out,” Mr. Valladares says, chuckling.
But the boat that was supposed to pick them up never arrived; and eventually the prison guards hunted them down in the island swamps. What happened? Mr. Valladares says he can only speculate, but that everyone knew the reputation of the prison and believed that escape was impossible. “They must have thought the plan and the planners were simply crazy so they never even bothered to come for us.”
That event would foreshadow the wider experience of the Cuban people over the next 50 years—abandonment by the outside world. Mr. Valladares explains it this way: “We felt that the world had turned its back on the prisoners of conscience in Cuba.” In truth, it had.
When Mrs. Valladares was allowed to leave Cuba in 1972 with her father—who had also been a political prisoner—and began an international effort to bring attention to the Cuban prisoners, the brutality of the regime was already well established. But as she found out, the facts weren’t much help. “It was very difficult,” she tells me, slowly and deliberately with more than a touch of sadness.
As an example, she describes her encounter with Seán MacBride, who was the former Amnesty International Chairman, at a human-rights conference in Venezuela in 1977. “He was very nice to me at first because he didn’t realize who I was. But when I tried to speak about the Cuban prisoners of conscience, he began banging on the microphone and screaming, ‘Don’t translate that! Don’t translate that!’ The journalists covering the event asked me, ‘Why is this man telling you to shut up?’”
The next day in the Venezuelan press there was a story titled “Human rights violated in a human-rights conference.” That same year MacBride was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize given by the Soviet Union.
Mr. Valladares says that as amazing as it sounds, it took Amnesty International until 1978 to “discover” that there were political prisoners in Cuba. “Eighteen years after I was jailed! There were already thousands murdered, tortured, Boitel had already died.”
Still AI has been downright progressive compared to some European governments. Mr. Valladares says that in 1988 the Spanish government of Felipe González was especially disingenuous, when its foreign minister told Mr. Valladares that Spain had no evidence of human-rights violations in Cuba. Only weeks later, he says, the Spanish embassy in Havana produced a report documenting the atrocities of the Cuban regime, but opted to bury it so as to give cover to Fidel.
When the report was leaked to the press, Mr. Valladares says he brought dozens of the Spanish newspapers to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva and distributed them. “I told the Spanish ambassador, ‘Congratulations, your report is very good. It is as good as the CIA report.’”
Mr. Valladares was giving the Spaniard a dig, but not without provocation. Both he and Mrs. Valladares say that over the years European government officials (Spain and Sweden to name but two) repeatedly acknowledged privately the regime’s unacceptable brutality. But the same officials also said that to come out against it publicly would be to admit that the U.S. was right about Castro. And nobody wanted to do that.
“Castro is still there because the world envies the U.S., and all that hatred for the U.S. has gone to support Fidel Castro,” Mr. Valladares says. As a result, the Cuban people have been left to fend for themselves against the jackboots and East German spy techniques of Cuban state security. Thousands have died trying to flee.
Martha Valladares says that in the past 50 years she thinks international support for Cuban liberty has improved “a little.” She believes the foreign press in Cuba—despite the fact that it is not free and is manipulated—has helped. “The Women in White” [a group of prisoners’ wives, mothers and sisters who have organized to bring attention to their loved ones] could not have existed before. We tried to do that when Armando’s group was on a hunger strike and they took us to jail.”
Mr. Valladares says that once Fidel dies, the regime will not be able to keep his death a secret for very long, and the odds for change will go way up. “The old guard will try to maintain the status quo, but there are many young officers who do not have blood on their hands and who won’t want to fight for a system that has failed and is dying.” Under those circumstances, he contends, there could be a struggle inside the military.
Add to this the fact that Raúl is not respected—and that “the youth are losing their fear and criticizing the government openly”—and you can see the possibilities for change. “The capacity to terrorize has a limit,” he says, “and the country is reaching it.” If anyone knows about that limit, it’s Mr. Valladares.
Ms. O’Grady writes the Americas column for The Wall Street Journal.